Cycads – Ancient Treasures of the World

The world of collecting cycads is as fascinating as the ancient plants themselves.

Collecting and investing in cycads started in earnest approximately 30 years ago in South Africa and has since spread worldwide, to the extent that it is one of the world’s fastest-growing hobbies, with cycads now being collected on a large scale globally.

Cycad collections are being bought up everywhere at an alarming rate, by both private collectors and corporate institutions. Cycad species that sold 15 years ago for R500 are now in great demand for R15 000, and the demand for certain species far outstrips the availability. This situation has unfortunately placed pressure on the natural habitat of many species. On the positive side, however, more plants have been successfully propagated from seed by cycad growers in the past 10 years than nature itself in the last 1000 years.

Cycads are the most primitive seedbearing plants known to man. As with the dinosaurs, cycads reached their peak in numbers and diversity during the Jurassic period, 136 million to 193 million years ago. One can almost say they are the coelacanths of the plant world. Relatively few of the original cycad forms survived the ice age, and very few living plants occur in relatively small and isolated pockets on earth.

Cycads grow very old – individual plants in nature are estimated to be as old as 3000 years, and have grown up to 7m in height. Cycads are monosexual, the sex becoming evident during the coning process. Female plants produce a seed-bearing, pineapple-like cone, whereas the male has thinner, yellowish, pollen-laden cones. South African and other African cycads, which are the most sought-after worldwide, belong to the Encephalartos family. Other forms of cycads occur in subtropical parts of the world such as the Americas, Asia and Australia, and belong to the Cycas, Dioon and Zamia families.

South African cycads, also commonly known by the Afrikaans name ‘broodbome’, grow naturally in the northern and eastern provinces, and on the east coast from Mozambique down to the Humansdorp area, which is the most southern natural habitat. Approximately 40 species have been described so far, one of which, E. woodii, is already extinct in the wild, with at least another seven species on the brink of extinction. Botanical history was made in 1895 when Dr Medley Wood collected the only specimen of a cycad from the Ngoye Forest in KwaZuluNatal. This very rare plant was loaded onto an ox wagon and carted to the botanical gardens where it is still growing today. Stems of the plant were separated from the main clump and replanted in the garden. In later years, one of the stems was donated to Kew gardens in the UK, where it is still being admired by visitors from all over the world.

That this, the only clump of E. woodii ever found, was collected from its natural habitat can be viewed in different ways: A. It was improper for Dr Wood to remove the one and only remaining plant from its natural habitat, in the process rendering it totally extinct in the wild, even though this specie was on the brink of extinction through natural means; or B. The removal of the plant from its natural habitat has ensured the survival of E. woodii for mankind.

It is estimated that there are now in excess of 500 specimens of E. woodii all over the world, which were all basal suckers from the original plant and its offspring – a process that is now continuing with positive and exponential results.E. woodii is considered to be the most valuable of all plant species on earth, both from a botanical and financial standpoint.

As an example, a mature E. woodii growing in a Johannesburg garden is on offer for R3 million There are thousands of South African cycad enthusiasts, many of whom belong to the Cycad Society of South Africa. The society is widely recognised for its excellent conservation efforts, as well as their support of the conservation-through-cultivation programmes. We are fortunate that the recognition of these precious plants by private collectors and institutions worldwide has led to greater awareness, organised propagation of seed, research, and expeditions into the wild.

Cycads are not only collected by individuals for private gardens, but magnificent collections can be viewed and enjoyed in parks and public gardens such as the Botanical Gardens of Pretoria, Durban, Kirstenbosch, Nelspruit and Roodepoort, The Union Buildings, Unisa and the Monte Casino Bird and Cycad gardens, to name a few in South Africa. There are also numerous parks and cycad gardens worldwide for public enjoyment.

To quote Charles A. Williams: “I am a Cycad. I saw the appearance of the dinosaurs and their death. I saw the early appearance of mammals. My numbers were many when the Ice Age one million years ago decimated my relatives in Europe and North America. Your mind and your appreciation of me and other animals of my kingdom set you above other animals. Yet you cannot comprehend my antiquity. My strength is in my antiquity and tenacity and you.”

For further information contact Cycads Unlimited, Jackie 076 032 4238 or Gerhard 083 660 0017, jackie@cycadsunlimited.com.
The Gardener